Byfield, Nicholas (DNB00)

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BYFIELD, NICHOLAS (1579–1622), puritan divine, a native of Warwickshire, son by his first wife of Richard Byfield, who became vicar of Stratford-on-Avon in January 1597. Nicholas was entered at Exeter College, Oxford, in Lent term 1596, as 'aged 17 at least,' which gives 1579 as the latest date for his birth; and this answers to the original inscription on his portrait, 'Ano Dei 1620 Aetatis suae 40,' thus making 1579 the earliest date. The second inscription (see below) shows that he was born in the last third of the year. He was four years at the university, but though a severe student did not graduate. Taking orders he intended to exercise his ministry in Ireland; but on his way thither he preached at Chester, and was prevailed upon to remain as one of the city preachers, without cure. He lectured at St. Peter's church, and was extremely popular. John Bruen [q. v.] was one of his hearers, and a kind friend to him. In 1611 he got into a controversy on the sabbath question in a curious way. A Chester lad, John Brerewood, was one of his catechists, and had been trained by Byfield in strict Sabbatarian habits. Consequently, when the lad went to London to serve as an apprentice, he refused to do his master's errands on Sundays, such as fetching wine and feeding a horse, and obeyed only under compulsion. The lad wrote to Byfield with his case of conscience, and was told to disobey. His uncle, Edward Brerewood [q. v.], first professor of astronomy in Gresham College, noticed the lad's depression, and, learn- ing its cause, gave him contrary advice, taking the ground that the fourth commandment was laid only upon masters. Brerewood opened a correspondence with Byfield on the subject. The discussion was not published till both Brerewood and Byfield had been long dead. It appeared at Oxford as 'A Learned Treatise of the Sabaoth, . . .' 1630, 4to; second edition, 1631, 4to. Byfield's part in it is curt and harsh; his manner roused Brerewood, who charges his correspondent with 'ignorant phantasies' [see Byfield, Richard]. On 31 March 1615 Byfield was admitted to the vicarage of Isleworth, in succession to Thomas Hawkes. It appears from his own statement in a dedication (1615) to Edward, earl of Bedford, whose chaplain he was, that his reputation had suffered from 'unjust aspersions.' What he means by saying that he had been cleared 'by the mouth and pen of the Lord's anointed, my most dread soveraigne,' is not evident. At Isleworth he was diligent in preaching twice every Sunday, and in giving expository lectures every Wednesday and Friday. He kept up his public work till five weeks before his death, though for fifteen years he had been tortured with the stone. He died on Sunday, 8 Sept. 1622. His portrait, painted on a small panel, hangs in Dr. Williams's library. The face is lifelike and rather young for his years, with a pleasing expression. Painted over the lower part of the panel is a portentous figure of the calculus from which he suffered, accompanied by this inscription: 'Mr. Nicholas Byfield, minister some times in the Citty of Chester, but last of Isleworth, in the county of Midellsex, where he deceased on the Lord's day September the 8, anno domini 1622, aged neer 43 years. The next day after his death he was opened by Mr. Millins, the chirurgion, who took a stone out of his bladder of this forme, being of a solid substance 16 inches compasse the length way, and 13 inches compass in thicknesse, which weighed 35 ounces auerdupois weight.' This corresponds closely with the account given in William Gouge's epistle prefixed to Byfield's 'Commentary upon the second chapter of the First Epistle of Saint Peter,' 1623, 4to. Gouge, who was present at the autopsy, makes the measurements of the calculus 15 inches about the edges, above 13 about the length, and almost 13 about the breadth. By his wife, Elizabeth, Byfield had at least eight children, of whom the third was Adoniram [q. v.]

Byfield's works were numerous, and most of them went through many editions, some as late as 1665. His expository works, which are Calvinistic, have been praised in modern times. His first publication was 'An Essay concerning the Assurance of God's Love and of Man's Salvation,' 1614, 8vo. This was followed by 'An Exposition upon the Epistle to the Colossians . . . being the substance of neare seaven yeeres weeke-dayes sermons,' 1615, fol. Brook gives abridged titles of fourteen works (eight being posthumous), adding ' several sermons,' but these are included in one or other of the collections previously enumerated in the list. The date of 'The Beginning of the Doctrine of Christ,' &c., is not 1609, as given by Brook, but 1619, 12mo. 'The Marrow of the Oracles of God,' 1620, 12mo (the last thing published by Byfield himself), is a collection of six treatises, which includes one separately enumerated by Brook, 'The Promises; or a Treatise showing how a godly Christian may support his heart,' &c., 1618, 12mo. Brook does not fully specify the issues of separate parts of Byfield's exposition of 1 Peter, nor does he give any indication of the later editions of the works.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), ii. 323; Brook's Lives of the Puritans, 1813, ii. 297.; Cox's Literature of the Sabbath Question, 1865, i. 159; authorities cited above; extracts from registers of St. Peter's, Chester, and Isleworth.]

A. G.